Is the government shortchanging the treasury?
There was a time when people believed that money was a scarce commodity in Guyana. Of course this was indeed the case when the country could not import many things, leading to a call for what became known as import substitution. This import substitution led to the production of local salted fish, eschallot, various peppers, tomatoes and a host of products that Guyana once imported.
This substitution saw the disappearance of canned foods like sardines. It also saw the failed attempts to replace wheat flour with rice flour. In fact, that is still the most criticized experiment, to the point that people still accuse the previous government of attempting to starve them.
There were lines for gasoline. People slept in their cars outside gas stations and resorted to every single dodge to get fuel supplies. But things changed. Many of the supplies returned following an edict by the late President Desmond Hoyte. There was still need to harness the resources, but gradually things got better.
That growth in resources continued with increasing imports, debt write-offs and foreign inflows by way of loans and grants. Cocaine, marijuana and inflows from overseas-based Guyanese played no small part.
The government helped the cause by disposing of assets that merely sat there and earned a lot of money. That money went into the body established in the 1980s; that body was the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL).
Today, NICIL is one of the most talked about entities. For starters, it holds at least $50 billion that is not even shared with the Treasury. This has been the talking point for quite awhile, but it was only with the new Parliamentary disposition that the real attention is placed on this entity.
It was set up as a holding entity for the government’s assets. Any government property sold or disposed off was to be done through NICIL. In recent years there have been a lot of assets disposed of. There were the state lands sold for purposes of housing; there were those lands sold to businessmen for the purposes of setting up business estates and industrial sites; there were the sugar lands, some of which went to facilitate Pradoville.
There were also the lands on the Sparendaam foreshore that have allowed for the establishment of some of the most remarkable homes in this country. Some of those homes would hold their own with any, in any part of the world.
Then there were the various assets including Sanata Textiles Limited which went to Queens Atlantic, the various state agencies including Guyana Pharmaceutical Corporation, Guyana Stockfeeds, the properties in Duke Street across from the United States Embassy, Herdmanston House and Herdmanston Lodge, the bauxite companies, Omai Gold Mines Limited, and the list goes on.
One would have expected that this money would have been placed for the benefit of the people, since the assets belonged to them. Instead, the Head of NICIL, Winston Brassington, had no compunction to hold on to the money. Just this past week, Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon told the press that there is nothing in law to compel NICIL to transfer the money to the Government treasury.
While this may be the case, it begs the question of who must spend the money held in the NICIL coffers. Of course, the Head of State has access to these funds, but one has been asking, who else? The last time the books for this entity were audited was back in 2003, almost nine years ago.
Khemraj Ramjattan, addressing a press conference on Thursday noted that while the government is accusing the parliamentary opposition of cutting $21 billion from the budget, the very government has withheld $50 billion from that same budget. This is a most interesting observation. If indeed the government had prepared a budget to cater for the needs of the people of Guyana, then why has it not made the $50 billion available?
If indeed the money is the people’s money, then it should not be held in secret. One is now forced to believe that since the government does not need parliamentary approval to spend this money it can do as it pleases – buy what it wants and spend on what it wants. The upshot is that the $21 billion cut from the budget should not be a problem.
If there is need for anything, all the government has to do is to apply to the NICIL funds. This is what it did with some $5 billion of Lotto funds. Former President Bharrat Jagdeo openly said that he had no intention of having anyone dictate how the Lotto funds would be spent.
This is why the nation keeps talking about executive theft and rampant corruption. This is why when the ordinary man sees the politicians amass huge wealth they know that all is not above board. Many now feel that the billions of dollars in the Lotto fund and in NICIL are there for the so-called big ones. And the government is doing nothing to prove the people wrong.
I see that some parliamentarians propose to ask questions about the NICIL funds. I hope that they get answers.